Phnom Chiso is older than the Angkor Wat. Located in Takeo province, 60 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, it was built in the early 11th century by King Suryavarman I as a tribute to Brahmanism. A set of stairs links the temple to Tonie Om - a lake considered sacred by Brahmans and used for washing away sins.
Although damaged by American bombing in 1973, much of the temple still stands. Built atop Chiso mountain, the temple overlooks a valley with serene views of Takeo's rice fields. Look hard enough and you might even catch a glimpse of the killing fields.
Whilst walking around the desolated grounds of Chiso, I saw a solitary figure sitting on the temple balcony. He stared into the distance. Much to my surprise, he spoke English. This was how I met Sakngea. He is 78 and has been an undertaker for sixty years. He lives in the temple and owns a small farm, where he rears chickens and grows bananas. Having lost his family to the Cambodian genocide, he lives the life of a lone ranger, finding solace in his solitude.
We spoke about Choeung Ek, a camp I had visited on my way to Chiso. The Khmer Rouge murdered 20,000 Cambodians at Choeung Ek. Some had their heads bashed in. Women were raped and then murdered. Babies were smashed against trees or flung into the air for target practice. Many died from starvation following the eviction of the populace to the countryside and the enforced collectivisation of agriculture. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed approximately 2 million people out of a population of 10 million. After the Vietnamese invasion, photos of open pits filled with corpses and bones came to light. For the world at that time, it must’ve been reminiscent of Auschwitz.
The locals told me that there are many restless souls at Choeung Ek. Whilst it was an extremely moving experience, I still grapple with calling this ‘genocide’.
Democratic Kampuchea was at that time a very ethnically homogenous country – more than 90% of the population were Buddhist of Khmer ethnicity. The killings were systematic murders of the Khmer, organised and conducted by the Khmer.
History defines ‘genocide’ as the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial or cultural group. Germans on Jews; Serbs on Bosnians; Pakistanis on Bengalis; Turks on Armenians; Indonesians on Chinese; Hutu on Tutsi – these are genocides. But what happened in Democratic Kampuchea is analogous to Mao’s revolution and Stalin’s purges. It wasn’t genocide. It was an ideology-driven mass slaughter in the name of the communist utopia. Pol Pot and his cronies believed that in order to create a truly classless society, extermination of the bourgeoisie, the wealthy and the learned was unavoidable. They were driven by neither racial nor ethnic prejudice.
So why do we call it ‘genocide’? Perhaps it’s Cambodia’s yearning for international sympathy as well as the aid and money that come with it. Perhaps it’s our ignorance. Perhaps it’s the superficial resemblance to other genocides. Or perhaps the media and other international organisations are hesitant to acknowledge the atrocities that are logically, rationally and systematically committed by communism in the name of equality. The truth may call into question the importance attached to equality as a critical value that holds together the fabric of our society. The surviving communist regimes, of course, are more than happy to comply with depicting Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as an engine of absurd paranoia instead of the well-oiled communist machine that it actually was.
Pol Pot died in 1998. Two of his five senior officials have passed away, whilst the rest are serving life sentences. They are the only ones to have ever been charged.
Sakngea knows very well that justice may never be served. He can only hope. I’m glad I went to the killing fields before I met him. It opened my eyes to the evidence of heinous crimes and brought to life the voices of the restless souls that our world continues to ignore.
Sakngea’s secret for inner peace? Chess, books, long walks and meditation with a healthy dose of cannabis.